The U.S. Forest Service just announced plans to finalize fees for commercial photography and filming in wilderness areas. Under the regulations, which are already in place on a temporary basis, amateur photography is allowable, as is photography in support of “breaking news” – but if you are a monetized blogger, a reporter working on a feature, or are otherwise planning on earning a penny as a result of a photograph or video you take in a designated wilderness area, it will cost up to $1,500 for approval and a permit. Failure to comply could see you slapped with a $1,000 fine.
The temporary regulations have apparently been in place for four years. They are now being clarified to cover commercial filming as well, and they will be made permanent in November, 2014. Acting wilderness director at the Forest Service, Liz Close, told Oregon Live that “the agency was implementing the Wilderness Act of 1964, which aims to protect wilderness areas from being exploited for commercial gain. ‘It’s not a problem, it’s a responsibility,’ she said. ‘We have to follow the statutory requirements.'”
While wilderness areas are protected from commercialization in general, what happens if you are hiking and happen to snap an amazing picture that’s not “breaking news” but you think you might actually be able to sell? Under the regulations you better hope you get paid more than $1,000 for that image because that’s the fine you’ll face for not having a permit when you took the photo. Blog contributors and reporters working on editorial stories rather than breaking news will also have to front up a fee or face a fine. While Forest Service spokesperson Larry Chambers has said the fee would be “up to $1,500,” there’s no indication of what the sliding fee scale might be.
The trouble is, the regulations are a little vague and out of touch with the ubiquity of high-quality smartphone photography. They also leave the decision as to whether something is breaking news or not at the discretion of the Forest Service. This is raising First Amendment issues for a number of commentators. Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, noted in the International Business Times, “the rules make no distinction between commercial and editorial photography. … having to get a permit to cover a news story, whether it’s breaking news or not, is a clear violation of the First Amendment. What’s more, because the Forest Service has the right to deny permits to projects it deems appropriate, journalists could be prohibited from covering stories simply because they cast the agency in an unfavorable light.”
The Forest Service is accepting public comment on the process here until 3 November, 2014.